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Essential HIPAA Compliance Strategies for Healthcare in 2024: Preventing Costly Data Breaches

Did you know that late last year, an urgent care clinic in Louisiana became the first healthcare organization in the United States to be fined by the Federal government for violating Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws due to a phishing attack? The almost half a million-dollar fine was preceded by the announcement of a $100,000 fine levied against a Massachusetts medical management firm for HIPAA violations due to a ransomware attack. These fines underscore a critical reality: compliance with HIPAA isn’t just a regulatory formality, it’s an essential safeguard against substantial financial penalties.

As a Security and Compliance Engineer at Blue Mantis, I’ve seen firsthand the critical importance of robust cybersecurity practices in healthcare. The stakes are high: protecting patient data isn’t just a matter of compliance with regulations like HIPAA, but also a fundamental aspect of patient trust and care.

It sounds cliché to say “it’s not if, but when” about a data breach, but we expect to see criminal hackers target healthcare organizations large and small in 2024. While there is a cost to securing your organization against hackers to maintain HIPAA compliance, you can face even higher costs for non-compliance when the inevitable cybersecurity incident occurs.

Compliance with HIPAA laws can seem daunting, but here are three best practices I recommend that healthcare organizations of any size can implement to maintain compliance and safeguard against data breaches:

1. Implement Multifactor Authentication (MFA)

MFA is a cornerstone of modern cybersecurity. By requiring multiple forms of verification, MFA significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized access. This approach combines two out of three from something you know (e.g., a password), something you have (a physical item such as your personal smartphone with an authenticator app or cryptographic hardware like a Yubikey), and something you are (like a fingerprint). Enforcing MFA policies increases the “impersonation resistance level” for every employee in a healthcare organization for very little capital outlay. While biometrics might be a stretch for smaller organizations, a combination of the first two can provide robust security.

I recall an incident where MFA prevented a breach at a healthcare company. They experienced multiple failed login attempts during off hours. Thanks to MFA, the attempted unauthorized access was thwarted as the employees followed their security training and knew not to authenticate these requests.

2. Conduct Regular Security Awareness Training

As alluded to in my MFA example, security awareness training is another must have for protecting healthcare organizations against cybersecurity attacks. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show 116 million people were affected by healthcare data breaches in 2023 and phishing remains one of the most common attack vectors. Training staff to recognize and respond appropriately to phishing attempts is crucial. This training should cover various types of phishing, including vishing and quishing, and provide guidelines on how to verify the authenticity of requests for information. When it comes to security, your people are your first line of defense and your eyes and ears to something suspicious.

A case in point: a healthcare organization avoided a major breach thanks to their staff’s ability to identify a phishing email disguised as a SharePoint link from a compromised partner. This highlights the need for continuous vigilance and education.

3. Regularly Audit and Assess Your Security

Regularly reviewing the strength of your organization’s security posture is like a health check-up for your IT environment. This involves vulnerability scans, penetration testing, and auditing user accounts to ensure appropriate access levels. It’s surprising how often we find redundant accounts or unnecessary admin privileges during these audits. These are potentially untended doors into your system.

Post-breach, these assessments are even more critical. At Blue Mantis, we’ve assisted organizations in identifying how breaches occurred and in hardening their networks to prevent future incidents. Remember, an organization that has suffered a breach is significantly more likely to be targeted again within the next six months.

Additional Considerations for Healthcare Organizations

Along with those best practices, there are a few additional considerations that are pivotal for healthcare organizations in fortifying their cybersecurity posture and ensuring comprehensive compliance:

  • Compliance Beyond HIPAA: Healthcare organizations often need to adhere to multiple regulatory frameworks. Regular assessments ensure compliance not just with HIPAA but also with other relevant standards like PCI DSS for payment processing.
  • Cyber Insurance: I strongly advocate for cyber insurance. It’s a safety net that can cover the considerable costs associated with a breach, including lost income, forensic analysis, and network rebuilding.
  • Annual Reviews: An annual assessment of your security posture, including penetration testing and vulnerability scans, is advisable. This aligns with many industry regulations and can be a requirement for maintaining cyber insurance.

Blue Mantis Helps Healthcare Organizations Mitigate Cybersecurity and Compliance Risks

The landscape of cybersecurity in healthcare is complex and dynamic. By implementing these best practices, healthcare organizations can significantly enhance their security posture, ensuring compliance and, more importantly, safeguarding the trust and well-being of their patients.

To take the first step in enhancing your organization’s cybersecurity resilience, I encourage you to connect with us to schedule a compliance assessment. Blue Mantis can tailor these comprehensive assessments to your specific needs.

Amber Clifton

Acting Deputy Director, Security Operations Cybersecurity

Amber Clifton is a Massachusetts-based cybersecurity professional with over a decade of diverse career experiences in incident response, digital forensics, and compliance. At Blue Mantis, Amber’s expertise in governance, risk, and compliance frameworks is an invaluable asset to clients ranging from multibillion-dollar global corporations to local nonprofit organizations. Prior to joining Blue Mantis, Amber led cybersecurity initiatives, performed incident response, forensic investigation, and cybersecurity training for Arcas Risk (acquired by Blue Mantis in 2023) and worked for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, handling immigration and medical credentialing for the Joint Cancer Center staff and Harvard Medical School Radiation Oncology Programs. Passionate about learning new skills and technologies, Amber achieved a Master’s from Northeastern University and a Bachelor’s from North Carolina State University.